TOPICS > Economy

Glut of Foreclosed Homes Encourages Scams, Desperation

March 23, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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With the national foreclosure rate still climbing, some chose to live in foreclosed homes while others have been the victims of "rent skimmers," people who pretend to own a foreclosed property and scam tenants out of thousands of dollars in security deposits and fees. Special Correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reports from Los Angeles.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Now, speaking of housing, here’s a report from California on how some people are living in homes already in foreclosure. Special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reports from Los Angeles.

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour correspondent: As a result of the explosion in home foreclosures, increasing numbers of people are living in places they have no legal right to be.

Sometimes occupants simply ignore eviction notices. That was the case here, where sheriff’s deputies came with a court order to evict a Los Angeles family from a house now owned by the bank. As family members packed up a few belongings and left, bank representatives put up “No Trespassing” signs and changed the locks.

The eviction was arranged by real estate agent Stephanie Vitacco.

STEPHANIE VITACCO, real estate agent: I’m going to need you to go into the kitchen and get a big bag.

JEFFREY KAYE: Vitacco manages and sells properties taken over by banks. Last year nationally, there were foreclosure filings on 2.3 million properties.

The crisis, exacerbated by job losses, appears to be deepening. In California last month, there was one foreclosure notice for every 165 homes.

The banks can’t sell property if there’s stuff or people inside, so Vitacco often spends her days driving from one house to another, making sure they’re empty and secure.

This home appeared to be vacant.

STEPHANIE VITACCO: It looks mostly empty.

JEFFREY KAYE: Vitacco posted notices, but then saw a neighbor park a car on the property.

STEPHANIE VITACCO: Excuse me. Do you live here?

NEIGHBOR: No.

STEPHANIE VITACCO: Oh, OK. You can’t park here.

NEIGHBOR: Oh, yes?

STEPHANIE VITACCO: No, any cars here will be towed. This is owned by the bank.

JEFFREY KAYE: Vitacco tries to make sure the houses are locked up, but often people break in.

STEPHANIE VITACCO: They take the toilets. I don’t know why they take the toilets. I don’t know where all the toilets go.

Living in foreclosed properties

JEFFREY KAYE: People living in foreclosed properties do so for a number of reasons. Some are homeowners who lost title because they didn't pay the mortgage, but stayed anyway. Others may be renters whose landlords were foreclosed on. Some are gang members, using empty houses as crash pads and for drug stashes.

STEPHANIE VITACCO: Oh, it smells.

JEFFREY KAYE: So do you know anything about who was living here? No. All you know is that people were living...

STEPHANIE VITACCO: They were like local -- local gang members, according to the -- according to the neighbors, according to the -- see, they're just looking for an empty house to camp out in.

JEFFREY KAYE: Yes. Yes.

And some occupants of foreclosed properties say they were misled, as eventually became clear at Vitacco's next destination, a three-bedroom house.

STEPHANIE VITACCO: And we're doing an occupancy check to see who is living in the property, and if they are living there, what their moving plans are.

They've kind of moved out, but I can't tell for sure.

JEFFREY KAYE: But as she looked around, it became apparent.

STEPHANIE VITACCO: Someone's living here. Hello?

Some tenants are defrauded

JEFFREY KAYE: She was right, as we discovered when we returned, without Vitacco, a couple of weeks later. The residents hadn't known the place had been foreclosed on when they moved in. "Carmen" -- she asked us not to reveal her identity -- had lived in the house with her husband and sons for three months.

You moved because the old place that you were living in was foreclosed on, you had to move out, so you moved into this place that you didn't know had been foreclosed on.

Evicted from one house, she made a deal with people claiming to be property managers. She signed a rental contract and paid $4,500 for a security deposit and one month's rent.

"CARMEN": I signed a contract for one year. OK, going -- it's OK, bring the money. I bring everything.

JEFFREY KAYE: But it was a rip-off, a fraud known as "rent skimming." A fly-by-night operator with no connection to the property had printed up a phony rental agreement with a fake company address and made off with Carmen's money. When she found out she'd been scammed, she went to the police.

DET. ERIN CAMPHOUSE, Los Angeles Police Department: Rent skimming, it is epidemic in the city of L.A. right now.

JEFFREY KAYE: Detective Erin Camphouse at the Los Angeles Police Department says, with foreclosures on the rise, so are the numbers of rent skimmers.

DET. ERIN CAMPHOUSE: They might drive a neighborhood and see three homes in that area, write down the addresses, and then go back and advertise those homes for rent. And when they advertise them for rent, it's usually a monthly rental price that's probably under market.

That crook may do the exact same thing to four or five other families. And on the first of the month, everyone comes to move in, and it's not a good situation.

JEFFREY KAYE: Carmen will now have to leave and will be paid to do so by Stephanie Vitacco. It's something real estate agents commonly do to avoid calling the cops, a practice known in the business as "cash for keys."

STEPHANIE VITACCO: If it is cash for keys, I negotiate and then I say, "OK, we'll give you $1,000 if you'll be out in two or three weeks or $2,000 if you'll be out in 10 days, whatever it is."

Defending their homes

JEFFREY KAYE: But Debora and Tommy Beard say they will not leave their foreclosed-on house so willingly. They vow to stay on principle.

Debora Beard is a teacher's assistant. Her husband, Tommy, is a cook. They've lived in their three-bedroom house in Watts in South Los Angeles for 23 years, first as renters. They bought the place in 2003. In 2007, they refinanced, borrowing against the house to make up for lost income, to make repairs, and to buy a new car. Their payments would go up; the loan broker told them not to worry.

DEBORA BEARD: At the time of the adjustable, we would be able to refinance for a lower mortgage payment and interest.

JEFFREY KAYE: Instead, their payments went from $1,450 to $3,200 a month.

And where did that leave you?

TOMMY BEARD: In a bind.

DEBORA BEARD: On the verge of being homeless.

TOMMY BEARD: A real bind.

DEBORA BEARD: We can't -- we don't have $3,200 take-home pay.

TOMMY BEARD: A very, very crucial situation for us.

JEFFREY KAYE: By the end of 2008, they owed more on the house than it was worth, and eviction proceedings began. They've been living in the house without making any payments.

The Beards, saying they were taken advantage of, came to a meeting of the Los Angeles chapter of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

DEBORA BEARD: We are trying to find a way to stay in our house. We've been there for 23 years. And I am willing to put up a fight to stay in there, because I don't want to live for free, but I do want a chance to regain ownership of my home. And if not ownership, I'd be willing to stay in it just as a renter.

JEFFREY KAYE: Activists promised to defend the Beards and others facing foreclosure.

MILLICENT HILL, ACORN: The reason that the civil rights movement was won is because of the solidarity of the people.

JEFFREY KAYE: ACORN is mounting what it calls a home defenders program in seven cities. Organizers pledge to incorporate civil disobedience in what they see as a new civil rights movement.

GROUP (singing): We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved.

MILLICENT HILL: We're all hard-working people. We're not drug-dealers; we're not trying to murderers; and we don't launder money. We just try to survive and take care of our families the best we can.

JEFFREY KAYE: So far, the Beards have not engaged in civil disobedience. They remain in their home while ACORN representatives negotiate with the bank on their behalf.